There’s an old joke that goes around the Maker’s Mark Distillery; “if we could make it any faster, we wouldn’t”.
This is because they pride themselves on going “one bottle at a time. Every time” and they’re still doing things at the distillery the way they were done back in 1953. You immediately notice this from the old letter-pressed labels, to the hand-dipped wax that oozes down each bottle, making every single one unique, to the way they hand-rotate every barrel. And this is all before you indulge into the liquid itself.
But what else makes Makers’ Mark so distinct? Well, there are a few different reasons as we’ll find out…
It all starts with sixth-generation distiller Bill Samuels Sr. Bill set out to find a flavour that would make his bourbon stand out from the competition or as he said, “a bourbon that won’t blow my ears off.”
This is why Maker’s Mark use soft red winter wheat as this imparts the front-of-palate sweetness that Maker’s is known for. And whilst this red winter wheat is a very important ingredient in the recipe, it only makes up 16% of the mash bill. Locally grown corn makes up 70% of the mash bill whilst the rest is rounded out with malted barley.
The corn comes from a local company, 'Mattingly', who they’ve had a relationship with for over 60 years and the wheat is locally sourced from ‘Petersons’ just up the road!
Maker’s Mark have access to some of the best water for making an excellent whisky or bourbon, in fact Maker’s Mark is the only distillery in the US with its own water source and watershed. The pure calcium and magnesium-rich water that surrounds the distillery makes a better sour mash and the Kentucky limestone filters out iron from the water, iron would make for a pretty unpleasant bourbon!
A further part of the process that makes Maker’s Mark a very distinct liquid is the fact that the yeast used is older than Maker’s Mark itself at over 150 years old. The same strain of yeast has been passed down to every single Maker’s Mark bottle that has ever been produced which is really quite something. As they say at the distillery “Would it have been easier to switch to cheaper stock yeast when everyone else was? Sure. But it wouldn't be better. And, it wouldn't be Maker's Mark.”
The tanks used to ferment the yeast are the same tanks that were original to the old Burks Distillery that predates Maker’s Mark, made of cypress planks that are over 100 years old. Cypress is hard to source today and is brilliant because it has no effect on the flavour of Maker’s Mark.
After over six decades experience, Maker’s Mark know that it takes just 40 seconds of fire to achieve Maker’s Mark number-three char, the perfect degree of char for them. Firing the barrels opens pores in the wood and caramelizes the natural wood sugars which help give Maker’s Mark pleasant vanilla notes. Before the barrels are fired, the cooperage seasons the new American oak used for the barrels outdoors for nine months, making sure the summer is included. This removes the bitter tannins for the wood that would otherwise impact the flavour of the liquid. And Maker’s Mark don’t just toast the wood, they fire it because they know how to get the optimum characteristics that make a Maker’s Mark liquid.
The barrels are then rotated by hand, ensuring proper exposure to the different temperatures around the rack house. Whilst other distillers have long abandoned this practice, Maker’s Mark like to do things the way they feel they should be done to yield the best possible liquid, not necessarily do things that are easier or more efficient. Rotating the bottles by hand ensures consistency from barrel to barrel. To give the liquid the signature Maker’s Mark DNA, barrels spend a minimum of three hot Kentucky summers in the top of the rack house where the whisky expands through the wood, gaining color and flavor.
Another element that helps Maker’s Mark stand out from many other bourbons and whiskies is the fact that it’s aged to taste and not just a case of bottling after a set period of time. The tasting panel determines when the whisky is ready to move to a cooler section, keeping it from maturing too quickly. Readiness is determined by the Master Distiller and expert tasting panel.
The Maker’s Mark Family
Bill Samuels Sr.'s quest to create Maker's Mark began with his only copy of the family's trusted, 170-year-old recipe.
After accidentally setting the family recipe on fire Bill sought to find his own mash bill by experimenting with different flavouring grains. Given that Bill had burned the only copy of the family recipe, he didn’t have years to wait on the aging process to see which experiments produced the best results. Instead of distilling the grains, Bill baked loafs of bread with various grain combinations and this led him to replace the hot bite of traditional rye grain with the delicate sweetness of soft, red winter wheat, a key ingredient that gives us the Maker’s Mark characteristics they’re known for today.
However, co-founder Margie Samuels was also pioneering and had her own influence on Maker’s Mark. The flavour of Maker’s Mark would differentiate it from its competition and Margie ensured that the bottle itself would do the same when placed on a shelf next to other bottles. From the shape of the bottle, the label, the signature red wax and even the name ‘Maker’s Mark’, these are all components of the Maker’s Mark product that came from Margie. It’s said that Margie is the reason most buy their first bottle of Maker's Mark and Bill is the reason they buy their second.
The signature red wax topper that Maker’s Mark is known for comes from when Margie hand dipped the very first bottles in her kitchen using the home fryer. Every sip of Maker’s Mark tastes just like the sip that came before it, however the way the red wax sets down the neck of each bottle ensures no two bottles are the same.
Margie brought the attention to detail she showed in the branding of Maker’s Mark to the distillery itself with some crediting her with inventing bourbon tourism in the United States. From its picturesque landscape to its distinctive red shutters, everything looks exactly in its place. To keep the distillery looking as good as it possibly could she even made Bill Sr, agree that for every dollar that went into the bourbon, another would go into restoring the distillery's buildings and grounds. Margie Samuels was also the first woman involved with a distillery to be inducted into The Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
Bill and Margie’s son Bill Samuels Jr took over the business in 1975 with Bill Sr giving just a few words of advice; “don’t screw up the whisky”.
Bill Sr needn’t have worried as Bill Jr showed that same knack for innovation as his parents as he launched a first-of-its-kind Ambassador program. Bill Jr further made his mark on the family legacy by launching Maker’s 46, the first new major Maker’s Mark product in over 50 years.
The grandson of Bill Sr and Margie and the son of Bill Jr, Rob, is now the Chief Distillery Officer focusing on growing the distillery to meet the world’s demand for Maker’s Mark whilst ensuring that every single barrel, bottle and drop of Maker’s Mark is produced the way it was originally intended to be. Under Rob’s leadership the distillery has added a first-of-its-kind limestone cellar to age Private Select and Maker's Mark 46 at a consistent 50 degrees year-round. Rob has also launched conservation efforts to ensure Maker's will be around for generations to come.
Maker’s Mark Private Select
Private Select is a continuation of Maker’s Mark wood-finishing series which began with Maker’s 46. It’s allowed The Whisky Shop to explore our own taste visions of Maker’s Mark.
Maker’s Mark Private Select offers a new take on the Maker’s 46 process. It begins with cask-strength Maker's Mark aged for nine additional weeks in barrels specially fitted with 10 wood-finishing staves within the Maker’s Mark limestone cellar. Where Private Select separates itself from Maker's Mark 46 is barrel customisation using five different stave types. This results in over 1,001 different possible combinations. As a single-barrel bourbon, all expressions of Maker's Mark Private Select are bottled at cask strength – which ranges from 108-114 proof.
The Whisky Shop’s very own Phil Dwyer, manager of our Manchester store, was involved in the selection of casks for The Whisky Shop Exclusive Maker’s Mark Private Select.
“Maker’s Mark is a Bourbon that has always set itself apart. It was premium when it launched many decades ago and even in the current climate, it can compete with the best of the best when it comes to variety and presentation. I started out in bars pouring Maker’s Mark for customers and now I am privileged enough to be able to say I’ve put my own mark on the brand and its sprawling history.”
These limited edition single barrel batches from Maker's Mark are both one of the first of its kind and an exclusive to The Whisky Shop. Taking inspiration from the process used to create Maker's 46, this Kentucky bourbon is crafted from a barrel made from a bespoke selection of different wooden staves, chosen by a team from The Whisky Shop. The final stave selection used five French oak staves cooked at high temperature in a convection oven, three French oak staves seared in an infra-red oven, and two more of the same but with ridges cut into the surface.
The Whisky Shop has two batches, both using different finishing staves to give each one its unique identity.
Phil says “Picking Batch 001 in Glasgow with my colleagues was a true experience that will never leave me. Glasgow was the hottest city in Europe on that day but even that didn’t distract from the opportunity that sat in front of us – selecting Europe’s first Private Select Single Barrel. Myself, Claire and Neil had Amanda Humphrey leading us through the blending process, as well as the reasoning for the stave selections and how they would impact on the final flavour. We went big for Batch 001 – a lot of spice, a lot of robust approach – something that would stand out from the crowd and bring everyone onboard with our own Makers Mark experience.”
Limited to just 270 bottles, the nose is cooling, with oak shavings and spearmint emerging with toffee and linseed oil. The palate is sweet and dry, with oak wood lingering on into the spicy finish.
Phil adds “Batch 002 is a more gentle soul. It’s the Southern Belle in the room – The elegance and charisma that this whisky brings is, as a Bourbon fan, second to none that I’ve tried before. Its initial soft sweetness and classic Maker’s character builds into this more powerful and layered liquid that will challenge your tastes buds and almost bring you into the realms of Scotch whisky flavour profiles.”
Limited to just 252 bottles, batch 002 is soft and sweet with figs, dates and ripe fruits. You'd be forgiven for thinking this had been matured in a sherry cask even though it's been nowhere near one. The nose is light, sweet and delicate, the palate has toffee, caramel, a hint of popcorn balanced with a slight peppery and fizzy spice finish.
We recently launched The Whisky Shop Private Select Batch 002 at a tasting in our Manchester store hosted by the brilliant Amanda Humphrey, Maker's Mark Diplomat. Watch the full tasting as Amanda and Phil take us through Maker's Mark from new make spirit, to Maker's 46 through to both Private Select Batches 001 and 002. Catch the full stream on Facebook here